Nepal tactics, without the strategy

On November 23, 2001, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) attacked an army barrack in western Nepal. The move shook the Nepali polity, for the rebels had been in ceasefire talks with the government for the preceding five months. Violence resumed.

More significantly, the Maoists had, for the first time, directly hit the army. Till then, as fierce battles raged between the Nepal Police and the Maoists, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) — even when it was in the vicinity — looked the other way. It had then seemed unfathomable why the Maoists would draw the RNA into the conflict. Kathmandu’s commentators concluded that the rebels had committed ‘political suicide’. RNA generals declared that they would defeat the insurgency in six months.

Like their Nepali counterparts in 2001, in Chhattisgarh the Indian Maoists have made a move which will lead to an escalation of an already violent conflict.

Fortunately —for the Indian political system, their institutional interests, and the people in the conflict zone — the Indian Army has stayed away from the battles in central India so far. But stories emanating from the Home Ministry in Delhi indicate a renewed determination to step up the security offensive. Numbed by the attack, Ministers who earlier understood the limits of the security approach have declared the rebels as ‘terrorists’. ‘Security analysts’ have jumped at the opportunity to portray constitutionalists, liberals and human rights activists as somehow complicit in the attack — arguing it is time to go the whole way in ‘eliminating red terror’, irrespective of the ‘collateral damage’. This narrative conveniently ignores the fact that the security operations have never let up and the state, overtly and covertly, has invested enormous resources to fight the Maoists. In fact, in the past few months itself, the Maoists have suffered losses in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra.

Sharpening polarisation

The current rhetoric in Delhi would be music to the ears of the Maoist leadership, for this is precisely the kind of belligerence they are hoping to ignite.

If the Nepali experience of high-profile attacks is any guide, the Indian Maoists have sought to project power. This would be a much-needed morale-booster to the organisation’s rank-and-file after a series of setbacks. It would have satisfied the impulses for revenge among a large section of South Bastar’s population, who have suffered due to the Salwa Judum experiment led by Mahendra Karma. The attack would be an effective medium to silence political rivals seeking to challenge the Maoists in the region and beyond.

But there are two other striking similarities with the tactics adopted by the Nepali Maoists. The first is provoking the state to launch even more ruthless coercive operations, in order to ‘expose the character of the ruling classes’. The 2001 attack on the army barrack led to a full-scale war in Nepal. An emergency was declared. The RNA’s strength went up from 45,000 to 90,000 in a matter of a few years. It was armed, financed, and supported by the ‘international community’, including U.S. and India to defeat the ‘terrorists’.

Yet, this was the period when the Maoists witnessed the greatest expansion, for the rebels calculated that the ‘greater the repression’, the better for their kranti. It gave them ammunition to portray the monarch-led state as being ‘anti-people’, and ‘imperialists and local feudals’ as acting in concert. The army engineered ‘disappearances’; soldiers raped and killed women; and by the end of the war in 2006, the security forces were responsible for almost two-thirds of the total killings, including of innocent civilians. The state approach helped the Maoists to tap into the resentment of local communities.

For a range of reasons, in areas where insurgents have the advantage of being enmeshed with society, security forces have a terrible track record of identifying targets, winning the confidence of the local population, and using force with caution. Instead, reports show their tendency to alienate citizens with their unaccountable actions. The Indian Maoists wish to invite this avatar of the state. This is in no way an argument to turn a blind eye to the Maoist violence, but to make a practical case that building on an already flawed counter-offensive — which has not eroded Maoist capacity substantially, as this attack proves — will aid the rebels.

The second similarity is engineering rifts within the mainstream political actors. The Nepali Maoists never targeted all their ‘enemies’ simultaneously. In the first few years, they attacked the Nepali Congress (NC) — the palace felt this would add to the king’s strength and turned a blind eye. When the Maoists attacked activists of the mainstream left, the NC felt that the divisions within the left would benefit them. The Maoists then attacked the palace loyalists and the army, which suited the parliamentary parties locked in conflict with the king.

With the attack on the Congress state leadership, the Maoists have succeeded in sharpening the divisions within the Indian political mainstream. Sections of Congress have begun attacking BJP in the hope of making the state government’s failure a poll issue and garnering sympathy; sections of the BJP may feel that with key Congress leaders out of the scene, they have an electoral advantage. The ability of the Maoists to become a key poll factor, even while calling for its boycott, is at play here — a feature visible in the Andhra Pradesh elections in 2004, when they tacitly backed Congress, and West Bengal elections, when they actively targeted the CPM. (It is another matter that in both cases, the newly elected governments were quick to launch an offensive against the rebels, showing the fragility of such ‘alliances’.)

To what end?

But certain caveats are in order. The Indian state’s coercive apparatus, and bleeding capacity, is much stronger. The Maoists cannot take over a single district headquarter — let alone state power.

International factors play a much greater role in Nepal, while corporate interests are more influential in India. India has a functioning democracy, and a relatively flexible constitutional arrangement, with the ability to accommodate new aspirations.

The biggest difference, however, is that the Nepali Maoists had a clear objective.

Their tactical moves were meant to achieve the strategic goal of creating a new political mainstream, holding elections for a Constituent Assembly, and abolishing the monarchy. The Indian Maoists may score temporary victories; they may shake local power structures; they may push the state to adopt welfare programmes and win concessions for their social base. But they do not have an attainable political goal which could serve as a meeting point with the Indian state in the existing balance of power, and give them space in the state structure.

As Aditya Adhikari, author of a forthcoming book on the Nepali Maoists, says, “In Nepal, the objective was to project military power to gain authority at the negotiating table. If you are not negotiating, and you do not have the capacity to win state power militarily, such attacks become merely tactical and unhinged from any long-term strategy.” Irrespective of the damage they inflict on the state, it is in the realm of a strategic political vision where the Indian Maoists will falter.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 1:48:51 PM |

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